Women chopped, burnt, kicked and vilified. Girls and women are subject to incest and to sexual abuse.
March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day and one of the headlines amidst the week-long celebrations spotlighted the alleged rape of a 29-year-old woman with autism and who, according to the report, “had the mental capacity of a seven-year old child.” The headlining of this abuse and of subsequent cover-up is commendable. But the report also spotlighted something that is equally significant and that is that a woman of 29, because she is deemed to be disabled, is a child.
The report goes on to make a call for revisiting “what they have for children with disabilities” and to ask what the Children’s Authority has to offer and to note that psychologists and psychiatrists are “over-medicating children.” The vulnerability of this woman is equated with the fact that she as a woman and as a disabled person can be threatened and made silent because she is like a child. Added to this is the fact that other women collude in that abuse.
What is even more interesting is that the report of rape and abuse is so sensationalised that the dignity of the female who is now a victim is trivialised.
The fact is that the leap from woman who is autistic to woman who is a child is just too easily made.
The violence that is so readily handed out to women of all classes and ages in TT society suggests that women are seen to be in need of correction and punishment by those, usually men, who treat them like children and as victims.
Not so long ago a young woman of 33, with whom I am acquainted, was accused by a relative of “being rude” because she “answered back”; in other words she spoke up to defend herself as any adult would. The person accusing her saw this young woman as in need of care and dependent.
She was therefore without the right to answer back. This was so perceived because the young woman has Down Syndrome. As a child and as a dependent she had to be taught respect for her “elders”.
She was therefore punished by having food withdrawn and by silence.
The fact is that there are no two sides to this story. Women are abused on a daily basis for “answering back”.
For daring to be disobedient.
They are kicked and chopped for not conforming to stereotyped roles or for simply being perceived as the weaker sex and vulnerable and, what is more, dependent, in a society hooked on power and status.
But many women do speak out, though they may use the language of art or poetry.
Many of our most vocal activists are writers and artists. There are women like Valerie Belgrave who, as both artist and activist, has for many decades focused on the right of women to exercise their creativity without being tied to the traditional roles of women.
I am presently teaching a collection of poems, which highlights sexual abuse and incest. One of the primary ways in which this poet speaks of the effects of abuse is to say that an abused woman remains a child in her heart, because she cannot ever let go of the child who has been wounded. The reason for this is that she is not allowed to voice that pain.
Those around her refuse to see the abuse and refuse to take action.
They refuse to let her speak out so “a girl sucking her thumb/still moans in me” (Rahim, Approaching Sabbaths: 30).
These are current issues. Yet few speak of them. Rahim in this collection of poems also notes the sense of shame that a girl carries with her throughout her life after she has been raped.
We ask instead when faced with such issues, how are we affected or how will it put us out, or what will be the consequences for us. Or we sensationalise. And after the sensation has gone, we return to the old ways and accept the abuse and the powerlessness.
This inability to arrive at stability is deeply problematic. So much in our little island is hidden and never spoken about. So much is excused for reasons that are really quite nonsensical.
As a society we seem to honour those who behave atrociously and punish those who work tirelessly at times for the sake of others — like women.
One way of addressing the issue of women’s rights is to focus on and spotlight those creative women from past and present who have in their individual ways spoken up for the rights of women.
Trinidad boasts of extraordinary creative women, like the late Marion O’Callaghan, who have worked to make the problems within our society visible. We need to say “thank you” and to celebrate them.
Artists such as Sybil Atteck, Valerie Belgrave, Ir?n?e Shaw, and writers including Dionne Brand, Shani Mootoo, NourbeSe Phillip, and Jennifer Rahim are all activists who explore the rights of women.
Individually and collectively they ask to be recognised as women who have the right to be treated as equal sexual, social and emotional human individuals, no matter what the capacity or the ability.
As artists they craft small parables.
They speak of the abuse of power in a society that sees women as powerless and, like the young woman with autism, as perpetually without the full and mature rights of citizenship.